Sometimes we hear laughter, other times fits of frustration coming from the circle of 21.
Parents, brave ones, are discussing a life that must seem like a horror show to some people: triplet-rearing. The baby stages. People, it doesn't get more hard core than the "It's Mine! Conflict Resolutions" workshop at the Loew's L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in the District.
"Hi, I'm Jennifer [Fisher] from Princeton, New Jersey." We politely nod our heads.
She quickly begins: "One is the loudest and maybe the . . . ruler. The other is complicated. So small, so young. . . . Oh my God, I love her with all my heart, but she pushes my buttons. Feisty."
Two of the triplets pair up, leaving an odd toddler out. And as with many multiple-birth households, chief communication methods among 2-year-olds can get brutish: biting and yanking ponytails.
"Have they drawn blood yet?" asks one mother.
"Broken skin," says Fisher.
"Yeah, had that yesterday."
This weekend, the 116 families at the annual Triplet Connection convention, dubbed "Kids in the Capital" (and, oh, how they march in threes), have been sharing tales of a triplet and sometimes quadruplet kind: The vomiting chain reaction. The eccentric kid who says, "Sorry, I'm going to bite you!" Then chomp. The countless strangers who have walked up to parents pushing a triplet stroller and apologized for their "burden."
But ask Janet Bleyl, founder of the Utah-based Triplet Connection, and it's "three times the love and hugs." She started the nonprofit after giving birth to identical triplets 22 years ago, back when information on multiple births was limited and the ordeal of premature deliveries -- hers came 10 weeks early -- was perhaps more wrenching than it needed to be.
Now the organization works with more than 35,000 families; about 1,500 more expectant parents join each year, says Bleyl, a mother of 10. It has a scientific advisory board of physicians who give practical information to balance the gloom-and-doom, selective-reduction speech from other doctors.
Having multiples is high risk, Bleyl says, but having a wealth of resources can make a "life-and-death difference." Her own triplets are doing just fine now: three sandy blond, dinner-table comedians fresh from a missionary trip to England and working at a Salt Lake City Wal-Mart this summer.
Back at the conflict-resolutions workshop, one husband says quietly that he asks his wife how he can help her, but "it's not what she wants to hear." Sandra Ramsey, a psychotherapist and discussion leader, suggests he move closer to said wife, who is staring at him from across the room. ("Keeping the Spark Alive!," the marriage counseling session, is down the hall, to the right.)
Another problem from the group: how to deal with favoritism. If one of the kids demands the Play-Doh, for example, and his brother is momentarily mashing it, what do you say? Ramsey, a mother of quadruplet 8-year-olds, has a suggestion. You tell the kid, Sorry, I love your brother more.
Brows furrow around the circle.
"So are you sarcastic?" asks Patricia Levy-Zuckerman, a mother of 22-month-old triplets. Her T-shirt has a photo of the little ones smiling in a triplet choo-choo wagon.
"At what age do they get sarcasm?"
Levy-Zuckerman, 37, was a consultant for the pharmaceutical industry before having Robert, Rachel and Jacob by natural conception, not that that is anybody's business. She can't go anywhere in the District without people demanding the 411 on her reproductive history, wondering if conception was natural or in vitro.
"Everyone asks me that and I find it so inappropriate," she tells them. Strangers also walk up to her and say, with pity, "Better you than me."
This troubles Levy-Zuckerman, who organizes the Triplets and More club locally. "I couldn't be happier in life, and it's sad because babyhood is going to end," she says. She had every intention of going back to the office, back to the 40 hours a week, and gave it up with no apologies. Watching the uniqueness unfold in three different kids is a joy that gives her chills, says Levy-Zuckerman.
Fortunately, she had about 100 hours of hired help a week in the triplets' first six months, making the experience less chaotic. And, oh. How crazy: Just peek into the playrooms on the hotel's second floor and watch for those flying Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore dolls.
In one toy pen, we stand near Jennifer Colecio from Weatherly, Pa., attending her first triplet convention, watching over 28-month-old Amanda, Alexis and Antonio -- aka the Night Owl, the Terrible Napper and the Early Bird -- as they trot around the Little Tikes slide and interact with other young triplets. Amanda is so excited she starts swiping at our pants and giving high-fives. Meanwhile, Kree Lindsay, director of the convention and mother of eight, including 20-year-old triplets, is bustling around the hotel, reuniting children with parents and keeping workshops on schedule. Lindsay is battling stage 3 breast cancer and will undergo major surgery next week. Still, fitting "Kids in the Capital" into her schedule was a top priority -- when she was going through triplet-rearing, group support was invaluable, she says.
Yesterday afternoon, Lindsay is moderating "Teen Talk! For Teens Only" in the hotel lobby lounge. Lots of orthodontia, Hollister tees, baseball caps. Also many promises of self-improvement in the noisy multiple-birth culture, starting with learning patience, flexibility and rounding out with anger management, as one girl suggested.
But the joy of being a multiple is clear, too, once we get the primo theme that everyone is an individual. Ryan McNicholas, 18, one of the "Teen Talk" leaders, wears a "Quad Squad" shirt that boasts a blue letter "B" like a jersey numeral. He was second out of the womb. Then we see brother Connor, slightly thinner, sporting "D," and then the sisters, Lindsay and Brynn, wearing the "Quad Squad" brand with pink lettering. The McNicholas kids represented 5 percent of their high school graduating class in Ohio, and, boy, were they popular.
And now: "Four different colleges, four different states," says their mother, Phyllis McNicholas, a 13-year veteran of the convention. "It's going to be really crazy for me. . . . I'm worried about losing my shopping partners."
The whole scene is, indeed, really super nutty. There are triplets and quads from 28 states and Puerto Rico. There's Kelli Davey and Katherine Holt-Davey of Salisbury, Md., who want to announce that lesbians can have babies, too. (Look at their trio of 25-month-old beauties!) And then there's Werkneh Sium, a Loew's L'Enfant employee, who tries to make sense of what is happening. He passed out peanut butter sandwiches to trios of carbon-copy grade-schoolers.
"It's interesting," Sium musters. Then co-worker Freddy Dominguez asks if we want to have triplets.
"Can you imagine triplets?" Sium tells him. "Lots of attending, lots of caring. How can you find a babysitter for triplets?"
Just ask one of the mothers.